Can I Be a Writer if I Can’t Speak English Idiomatically?
If English is the only language that I can claim proficiency in, shouldn’t I be able to speak and write it idiomatically and well, even if it’s not my first language?
By the SeaslideWhat a stunning combination of words
Of courseAll swords have two sides, you idiot.
And yet I feel I can’t speak English, a language I have been exclusively speaking for twenty-three years, idiomatically. To me, the proof is evidenced by how much time I spend with the dictionary, how much time I spend googling the origin and meaning of particular idioms, how I copy out the words of writers I admire in hopes that I might learn to write idiomatically through mimicry.
I am a writer by vocation, but I don’t seem to, anymore, have a native language. I wonder, then: Can I be a good writer if I don’t speak English idiomatically? Can I be a writer at all if I don’t have any native language?
Scholarship in linguistics has long worked toward an understanding of what it means to be a native speaker of a language, especially in the face of globalization. Early American linguist Leonard Bloomfield, in his book Language (written in 1933), defines nativity to a language: “The first language a human being learns to speak is his native language; he is a native speaker of this language.” But then Bloomfield goes on to describe the immigrant speaker’s dilemma:
If the immigrant is linguistically isolated, if his cultural level is low, and, above all, if he marries a person of different speech, he may cease entirely to use his native language and even lose the power of speaking it intelligibly. English becomes his only language, though he may speak it very imperfectly; it becomes the native language of his children. They may speak it at first with foreign features, but outside contacts soon bring about a complete or nearly complete correction.
Scholars criticize Bloomfield’s definition of a native language as falling short, illustrated by Bloomfield’s own admission that it’s possible to lose one’s native language in a single lifetime. Therefore, defining language nativity as the language one is born into is insufficient. A more comprehensive definition is needed of what a native language is.
A person must have acquired the language in their early, formative years;
The person has an intuitive grasp of the language;
The person can hold spontaneous and fluent conversation in the language;
The person is competent in the language enough to get by in various social settings;
The person identifies with, or, conversely, is identified by, the community that speaks that language;
The individual does not have a foreign accent when they speak the language.
Rules number three and six take from me the ability to call Urdu my native language. So can I claim English as my own? According to scholar Rana Abid Thyab, native speakers of a language “tend to use idiomatic expressions spontaneously without thinking of the figurative meaning.” Thyab’s use of the word spontaneously harkens back to Lee’s third rule that one be able to hold “spontaneous conversation.” The spontaneity of idiom use, then, would be part and parcel of rule three and would be a marker of language nativity, meaning I can’t make the strongest possible case for claiming English as a native language either.
Thyab, accordingly, prescribes the following for the English learner: Because idiomatic expressions are an essential part of English’s lexicon and vocabulary, “idiomatic expressions are, therefore, considered inevitable for non-native speakers of English. As a result, non-native speakers of English should get accustomed to using these expressions.” Articles recommending to English learners the crucial idioms that native English speakers “love using” abound. Thyab goes on to say that one can become “native-like in English” by “learning idiomatic expressions, understanding their meanings and using them frequently,” and thereby be able to claim Lee’s third criterion.
A language is spoken idiomatically if it is spoken according to the norms—often illogical and messy and recursive and culture-based—of its native speaker. To speak idiomatically is to use expressions whose meanings are different from their literal meanings and that fellow native speakers understand, often because of shared contexts and conceptualizations learned as they grow up with the language saturating their particular community. Idioms—subtle or flagrant, terse or winding—are almost a secret language within a language, an intuitive linguistic shorthand. This is why they have always mesmerized me.
Can I claim English as my own?
To speak a language idiomatically means a couple of things. The most obvious is to use those colorful, picturesque phrases whose individual words’ definitions don’t make up their meaning. For example, “hot under the collar” refers to the universal human experience of getting hot when angry—thus it’s an idiom about being angry while reminding the listener of feeling the constriction of a hot shirt. This kind of idiom might be more accessible to people across various cultures because it serves as a metaphor for human feelings or experiences—it’s an idiom that’s easy to universalize, in other words, because the context is human experience. Other idioms have historical significance or cultural remembrance, like “it’s raining cats and dogs,” which originated in seventeenth-century England, when heavy rain would carry dead animals in its rushing swells along streets. This latter kind of idiom is more difficult to translate across cultures, even if its native speakers aren’t familiar with the historical context it originally arose from.
But idioms also have a more subtle appearance in colloquial speech, iterations that speakers often don’t take to be idiomatic but that certainly—and technically—are. The question “How old are you?” is an idiom, and this becomes apparent when we consider that it sounds a bit off, a bit clunky and mechanical, to ask someone, “How many years has it been since the day you were born?” While in this latter phrase, each word’s definition comes to make up the sentence’s meaning, “How old are you?” gets its meaning not from its individual words, but from the meaning given to it colloquially.
While it’s certainly feasible to Google particular idioms and learn how to use them in my writing, how can I learn what isn’t in the dictionary?
As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, one way I’ve learned idioms is through reading. An author I love is Raymond Chandler, who could describe the heck out of a city with idioms that seem to masquerade as metaphors but that are so subtle and unique as to hint to a collective way of speaking I never learned. It’s from Chandler I’ve learned that light can glint off shiny surfaces, that you can kill a cigarette. I learned from him of bottle blondes, of straw blondes, of “women who should be young but have faces like stale beer; men with pulled-down hats and quick eyes that look the street over behind the cupped hand that shields the match flame; worn intellectuals with cigarette coughs and no money in the bank” (from chapter eight of The High Window). Cigarette coughs, quick eyes, cupped hands, granite faces. These are metaphors and similes, but they translate effectively to the reader because of an idiomatic vocabulary shared by English speakers.
Such colloquial idiomatic uses of words aren’t apparent from their dictionary definitions but rather are learned from the environment, one that I didn’t have access to growing up. So I teach myself by writing down others’ words to learn how their sentences work, hoping my brain might learn what came intuitively to these writers.
I feel, oftentimes, as though I’m floating. I don’t know which identity to claim, which definition will tether me to the ground. I even can feel uncertainty around my chosen profession, writing, because I have to work hard at it, and working hard at something elides the possibility of having a natural, authentic, organic, native proficiency to it.
And so I feel amorphous, floating between identities, never resting for long on one descriptor, on any one of the identities, languages I can claim but that I feel uneasy about claiming.
Philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote an essay called “Monolingualism of the Other,” in which he calls for a certain kind of liberation and emancipation and revolution that sounds seductive to me in its rebelliousness, its anarchy: “Consequently, anyone should be able to declare under oath: I have only one language and it is not mine; my ‘own’ language is, for me, a language that cannot be assimilated. My language, the only one I hear myself speak and agree to speak, is the language of the other.”
Derrida talks about the impossibility of holding possession of a language, that to claim a language as one’s natural property is a kind of “cultural usurpation,” that this kind of possession will always be colonial. He opens up language to anyone, and this portends a lush possibility for the creation of art. The ability to speak a language at all is the starting point here, the springboard for creation. Language, through Derrida’s words, becomes something beautifully fluid and inclusive, an elastic complement to everyone’s, my protean existence.
What reverberates within me as I read Derrida’s words is a warmth. I feel validated—my language, the only one I hear myself speak, though it be the language of the other, is still the only one I have. I’m not sure whether I understand all of Derrida, but what I do understand allows me to feel emboldened to accept the difficulty I have with idioms in English in a way that quashes my embarrassment. I can still work to understand idioms, to read others and learn from their formation of words how to write better, but I can also create works that speak to my unique experience with the language as I know it in this moment.
What Derrida’s words fill me with is hope: that I can be a writer in a language that is not mine, so long as I continue to create—for what I create can be mine, even if the language isn’t. Instead of being stalled in questions of whether I have a right to speak a certain language, I can say to myself that my language is the language of the other, a reminder that helps me to feel justified in creating and working within my own unique style, as opposed to always following the styles of others. By reminding myself of Derrida’s words, I hope to feel comfortable enough to create something new, something that might add to our shared experience of language.
I write about movies a lot, and in so doing, I’ve invented a style that I enjoy following. My writing isn’t too idiomatic—when it is, know it’s only after quite a bit of research and googling. What it is is bound to my experience more than to collective colloquialisms. I write of movies based on how they make me feel, various effects the visuals and the dialogue have on my brain, my body; I speak to my physical experience of watching a given movie. This is how I am learning to have confidence in my writing—by writing through myself, my own experience, and my own language.
And so, from the liminal space of having lost nativity to a language and still working on learning the only one I know to read and write and speak, the one that is “not mine,” I create with it works and words that are mine. I don’t know if this is a correct solution to my problem, but it’s the only one I have been able to find that allows me to feel calm, solid, not so much like a languageless ghost.
And so I create a vocabulary for myself, of myself.